B.K.S. Iyengar would have been 97 on Monday, and Google honoured him on the home page of globalization. The guru, rendered in cartoon avatar, doodled through pigeon, triangle, and headstand twists. The illustrator gave him the silver mane of his elder years, but also the litheness of his youth.
My first reaction was cozy. “Google” can still be a fun word, and who doesn’t love the doodle? The white page implies a wintry playground, and the brown stick figure sweeps angels into the snow of search-engine possibility.
For a moment, I felt a warm sigh roll through me: “The practice is truly for everyone. Yoga has come of age.”
But what age?
An age in which it makes perfect sense for techno-capitalism to co-opt yoga as its go-to religion. In which a virtual power aligns with an embodied practice to foreshadow its plans to reach into our very breath and cells with its web-crawlers. Continue reading “Guru Google”
Yogagate: The Downward Dogwhistle Story
Last updated: December 6th.
Liquid Facts, Solid Derision
On Friday, November 20th, the Ottawa Sun broke a story that went viral. The global backlash has distorted and minimized an issue that South Asian thought leaders in yoga culture have been grappling with for years.
“Student leaders have pulled the mat out from 60 University of Ottawa students,” the story began, “ending a free on-campus yoga class over fears the teachings could be seen as a form of ‘cultural appropriation.'”
The class was administered by the student-run Centre for Students with Disabilities (hereafter “Centre”), under the umbrella of the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (hereafter “Federation”).
“Jennifer Scharf,” the piece continued, “who has been offering free weekly yoga instruction to students since 2008, says she was shocked when told in September the program would be suspended, and saddened when she learned of the reasoning.”
The Sun reported that Scharf was told via email that:
“Yoga has been under a lot of controversy lately due to how it is being practiced,” and which cultures those practices “are being taken from.” The centre official argues since many of those cultures “have experienced oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and western supremacy … we need to be mindful of this and how we express ourselves while practising yoga.”
In a phone interview with me, Sun reporter Aeden Helmer clarified that these quotes came from a single participant in a 17-page email correspondence between the Centre, the Federation, and Scharf that ran from September through November.
The Sun article concluded with the comments of Federation official Julie Seguin, which argue against the validity of the cultural appropriation reasoning. Helmer confirmed via email that Seguin’s quotes were drawn from that same correspondence, which suggests that the Centre and the Federation were not in agreement on the issue as it was being discussed. Continue reading “Yogagate: The Downward Dogwhistle Story”
The Meditation-as-Conversation Sutras
It was impossible to get a conversation going. Everybody was talking too much.
– Yogi Berra
A while back I posted this article about meditation. It suggested that if we think of meditation as an internal conversation, we can stop wondering about the best techniques or the true self or ultimate states, and start asking about what kinds of conversations are useful, and what good conversations feel like. I argued that the tension between our private practice and our social reality might be softened if we model our internal dialogues upon what we desire from our relationships.
But the article was terribly long, and terribly long articles can feel like one-sided conversations. So I thought this shorter and (I hope) more conversational version might help. It’s still in beta mode.
It Makes Sense that We’d Sexually Objectify Justin Trudeau, for Just a Little While
Sexual objectification dehumanizes, hollows out subjectivity, strips agency. It’s the most virulent bug in the social software. Marketers exploit it for maximum return.
But when the target is a gorgeous male politician who works it hard by duckfacing the international press, the creep factor gets lost in the giddiness.
Hotness and hope are commingling in Canada’s Camelot.
And anxiety too. A lot of men out there, including me, just had their repressed dysmorphia torqued up with a big homoerotic rachet, wielded in the manly hands of Justin Trudeau. We’re poking our bellies, searching for abs. Continue reading “It Makes Sense that We’d Sexually Objectify Justin Trudeau, for Just a Little While”
What Do You Feel? Ayurveda and Becoming the Poet of Yourself
“What does anxiety feel like?”
I’ll ask the question in groups beginning to study Ayurveda. The first round of answers rolls out:
Worried. Concerned. Apprehensive. Uneasy. Fearful. Agitated. Nervous.
They’re all great words. But, I’ll suggest, as psychological synonyms, they might not get us any closer to what anxiety really feels like.
What does “worried” feel like, after all? How does it feel similar to or different from “anxiety”? Continue reading “What Do You Feel? Ayurveda and Becoming the Poet of Yourself”
Two Wings of Yogic Self-Care: Data and Intention (or Herbs and Sugar Pills)
Unlearning Meditation by Jason Siff hinges on an obvious but stunning insight. He says that the first of all problems in meditation is the meeting between the given instructions and the mind-as-it-is. Will the meeting provoke a confrontation, or begin a warm discussion? How will you respond to being told what to do? Will internalizing the voice that tells you what to do increase your sense of internal conflict? Will it build self-esteem, or tear it down? What’s that perfect amount of friction that will stimulate curiosity, but not inadequacy?
These are questions that resonate to the quick of our core social conditioning. They trigger reflection into our earliest learning environments with parents or childhood teachers. They bear witness to the complex of voices and impulses that constitute the developmental self. They pierce through the content of our knowledge to excavate the patterns of how we learn. Nobody but the practitioner can answer them.
Really grasping Siff’s conundrum has revolutionized the way I facilitate classes in everything from yoga philosophy to restorative yoga to Ayurveda. I now open every course with an assertion that has up till now only been implicit: that as practitioners and teachers we have to pay ever-closer attention to the relationship between techniques of care (the instructions in Siff’s model), and the contexts of care (the presentation of those instructions, and how the immediate response to that presentation will frame the process that follows).
The trouble is, the vast majority of focus in modern Euro-American yoga teaching and its adjuncts like Ayurveda is set up to deliver techniques and data. In any given training, I’d say that 90% of the explicit focus will be on transmitting information and practicing methods. The contexts of care may receive that remaining 10% of explicit attention, but they will mostly be conveyed through implicit signals: how does the instructor hold space, answer questions, confess the limits of their knowledge, be available or cloistered during breaks, etc.
This lopsided percentage seems inevitable in the context of modern yoga’s extra-curricular, continuing-education pedagogical infrastructure, which is largely transactional by nature. You see the skill set packaged as a product, choose the hours and location that fit your work/family schedule and transit situation, pay your dollars, and get the data. More transactions tender more data, which becomes a metric of progress. Evaluations of how well you’ve processed that data (or changed it to suit your purposes) are left up to the market, which elevates teachers on the whim of popularity and the smell of money. If you don’t get the amount or kind or format of data you think you want or need or signed up for, you can always make a consumer complaint.
For years, people have asked me for PDF copies of the slides I use to facilitate classes. I usually demur by saying that I’m never happy enough with them to publish them. But in my heart I’m wondering If I give you these slides, will you check out of this moment? What will they pile up next to on your hard drive? Along with many humanities professors, I’ve considered ditching the slides altogether and returning to the chalkboard, which can erased. Slides emphasize the data-products of education over the process. Yoga and Ayurveda cultures offer way too much data for any one student to fully grasp. But focused selections of data can be useful insofar as they encourage students to learn to reason, intuit, and inquire without undue anxiety.
Yoga and Ayurveda are highly interpersonal subjects that have never been taught in this type of transactional manner. The gurukula model, especially for topics like Ayurveda, demanded that learning the techniques took place within the overarching context of care. In many cases, the student lived in the teacher’s home, worked as an assistant, and witnessed first-hand how practice reflected life and vice-versa. Of course this intimacy is likely plagued with power dynamics that would be intolerable to turnkey generations, and in any case it’s virtually impossible to organize in the alienation of late capitalism. The Ashtanga community makes a valiant attempt with its emphasis on daily personal contact and the intentional organization of rhythmic ritual space. But for the most part, Euro-American yoga culture replicates rather than resists the consumer model of education, in which products take precedence over contexts of care.
Back to Siff, who applies the analysis to meditation techniques. We could apply it to asana as well. But I’ll turn it only Ayurveda for a moment. What are its easily-transacted consumer products? Self-assessment tools. Herbs, oils, daily routines, and exercise plans that coordinate with self-assessments. Mantras. Cooking rituals. Cookbooks. And food lists. Lots and lots of food lists!
I’m not denigrating the data at all. It comes to the world through a mostly-oral culture through which Indians have preserved the daily rituals of millennia. Its insights into the flow of time and the micro-macro conjunction of body and world are no less potent for being commodified.
But Siff’s challenge is this: how do we encounter this data? What is our immediate response to it? How does it make us feel?
In my time as an instructor, I’ve seen a modest share of what I would call empowered responses to Ayurvedic learning. I’d describe them as open but skeptical, curious and pragmatic. The student takes a little data at a time, asks realistic questions about its applicability to everyday life, and slowly begins to form a new and flexible perspective on biorhythm, appropriate effort, dietary sanity, technology exposure, and sleep hygiene. They look for resources immediately available to them. They begin from the premise that they’re basically okay. Warts and all, their bodies are generally self-caring and getting on with it, but could use some help in deconditioning from stress. They manage their behavioural changes in small steps, savouring and integrating each reward as it comes, with no grand goal of farting rainbows.
Often, however, and despite my efforts to resist the charge of the transactional structure in which I’m projected as a person who knows more about life than the people in front of me, the first set of responses to Ayur-data is a surge of inadequacy:
“This information is so perfect!”
“Indian things are so smart and beautiful, and here I am living in Jersey!”
“How did you learn all that stuff?”
How will I ever absorb it all?”
“What’s my dosha? I just can’t understand my dosha!”
“Why oh why didn’t I study Sanskrit in college?”
“My life is just too busy to improve everything in all these intricate ways!”
“I’d like to be a good Ayurveda-person, but my children make me crazy!”
“If only I knew what my goddam dosha was I’d know whether to eat green grapes or red grapes!”
Obviously the anxious response to data and instruction doesn’t help anybody. It’s likely to provoke old patterns of disempowered learning remembered from family or sports coaches or music teachers, or those health-fad gurus with crazed eyes who insist your life will be vastly improved if you’d only eat more avocadoes grown thousands of miles from where you live. It also allows the practitioner or teacher to magnify the stress of consumerism. Most will do this unwittingly through the seductive power of countertransference. But it’s no secret that there are teachers and therapists who consciously manipulate feelings of inadequacy.
There’s another type of disempowered learning-response, although it’s tricky to see, because it looks like enthusiasm. I call it Sari Ayurveda (or “I’m really sorry I’m not Indian Ayurveda”). The new non-Indian Ayurveda student expresses its most exuberant form by showing up to the class potluck wearing a sari, chanting mantras over rice pudding sprinkled with rose petals. I like saris well enough, and I love rice pudding and mantras, but a manic enthusiasm for cultural difference is usually more about fantasizing about a different life than integrating the life one actually has.
I’ll be the first to say that bursts of Indophilism can provide a needed break from the atomized homogeneity of the Euro-American middle class. The masala of Indian aesthetics known through global export is refreshingly anti-Ikea. But people who drive head-first into Ayurveda or yoga studies as though they’ve found the promised land are bound to be disappointed. To them, the data is like a sari: a living garment in one culture that becomes a costume in another. It’s a way of avoiding the other wing of self-care, which asks “How do you feel about how this data interacts with your actual life?”
If Ayurveda is about integrating with your environment, it will hardly do to play tourist in your hometown. It might be good to remember that Ayurveda and Greek medicine share root understandings of wellness, and that in Europe, Greek medicine localized itself to every language and herbology it encountered. Four hundred years ago, most medicine was Greco-Ayurvedic in flavour, theorized in humours and doshas, and adapted to local resource and custom. The existential question in the age of globalization is: What are my local resources and customs? I feel this is something to not only contemplate but work on through simple things like home gardening.
Data and techniques can’t entirely be separated from the contexts of care, because they inspire faith, and faith informs care. Here’s where we can add another flavour to this dyad, and speak about the relationship between “active ingredients” and “placebo”.
Are there active ingredients of a yoga practice? Of Ayurveda? Some will say breath, some will say mindfulness, some will say adherence to certain ethical principles, some will say spirals or energy or grounded femurs, some will say triphala and the neti pot, some will say regularity and dedication, some will say devotion to a guru. Some cherry-pick the list, and some go whole hog.
Everyone is has their formulas and reasons, but no one can define amounts or intensities. There’s a general consensus that yoga works through certain active ingredients, but we don’t know how to measure them, or what they do precisely, and for whom. They cannot be isolated and tested in any way that would satisfy the evidence standards of even undergrad science. This is because they are intrinsically blended with the placebo effect.
Placebo drives pharmacologists to distraction. It must be humiliating to work for years on a drug that gets marketed on the basis of beating a sugar pill in 5% of test subjects. But whether they know it or not, yogis and Ayur-people are dealing with placebo all the time, simply by virtue of the fact that they cannot say for sure what the active ingredient of their processes actually are. Perhaps some face the same disillusionment as the pharmacologists if they realize that painstaking years of exacting asana cues prove only marginally more effective in stress relief and self-inquiry than rolling around on the floor with bolsters.
The placebo carries the wide-open, negative definition of improvement not directly attributable to a given intervention. It’s thought to involve everything from spontaneous improvement to stress reduction to the shared expectation of the doctor and client that the treatment will work to the client’s faith in the doctor or drug. These sound an awful lot like the factors of a care-giving relationship.
In my work with Ayurveda clients it often seems that the active ingredients of the recipes or herbs traditionally said to be helpful are matched if not outweighed in their impact by the time and consideration it takes to learn about them, prepare them, and try out their new tastes. Let’s say a client makes a stew for themselves that has all the right ingredients in it to feel nourishing in just the proper Ayurvedic way. How much more nourishing will it actually feel if the client is also cooking for themselves for the first time in three years? Did that pancha karma treatment really do what the advert said, or could the fact that you spent a week by the beach not working have something to do with feeling better?
My work as a consultant, yoga teacher, and yoga educator is complicated by the fact that I can never really know what’s working. But it does seem that outcomes improve if I pay as much if not more attention to the contexts of care as I do to the data. The primary context is empowerment. Proper diet and herbs may well help with a person’s chronic IBS. But so can really listening to their story. Therapists have to recognize that the bright and unexpected sensations of attunement and validation and the permission for self-care may be interrupting that bowel discomfort as much as that soup or kitcheri monodiet is.
It’s poignant that drug trials administer placebos in the form of sugar pills. In Ayurveda, the sugar pill can’t be entirely inert, because it’s sweet. Madhu is the Sanskrit word for sweet, probably referring originally to honey. It’s cognate with the Greek methu (wine), and comes into Celtic as the name of Maeve (“she who intoxicates”), and into English as the honey-wine known as mead.
The context of care might have no measurable effect, but it helps when it’s sweet. The sweetness of care allows for the strange ferment of matter and mind. It relieves the anxiety of stressing over asanas and lineages and sequences and instructions and herbs, or anything else that increases the distance or tension between who you are and who you want to be.
Yoga and Social Justice: a Prickly Dualism
Last week my friend Roseanne Harvey over at It’s All Yoga Baby emailed me in preparation for the excellent survey she just published:
remember when we were all fired up about yoga and politics, and in 2012 you and i both endorsed barack obama and encouraged yoga practitioners to vote in the US election?
and now it’s 2015, a canadian election looms, just as urgent, and none of us are rallying the canadian yoga public to get out there and vote, nor are we endorsing anybody…
anyway, i’ve been thinking about this and have started working on a story. are canadian practitioners even more apolitical than american, or are we too quiet, or does nobody care about the tenuous connection between yoga and politics anymore?
Yeah, I remember, Roseanne. And like my Anybody But Romney position in 2012, I’m pursuing an Anybody But Conservative strategy this time around, in the desperate interest of harm-reduction.
For the unfamiliar: the Conservative government of Stephen Harper is an oil-guzzling WASPy mafia of racist, misogynistic, mean-spirited, venal, narcissistic, fear-mongering, anti-intellectual, self-certain gluttons. His agenda is an ashen alchemy of apathy and aggression, droning with the assurance of someone who couldn’t change course if he wanted to, because the learning part of him is dead.
His lowest trick so far — if these 70 abuses of power aren’t enough — is to promise his paranoid constituency a dedicated police hotline for snitching on Muslims. But wait — it gets worse. Now we learn that his office interfered in the processing of Syrian refugee claims to block Sunni and Shia families in favour of Christians. Within minutes of pressing publish on this thing, another sickening revelation will surface. Sometimes I don’t know if I’m watching the news or a livestream of metastatic cancer.
I’ve got an orange sign in the front yard. (For readers beyond Canada: it’s for the once-leftish-now-depressingly-cutting-to-centre-right NDP, who I grew up supporting in a staunchly pro-labour household.) But the Conservative candidate has no chance here, and if the Liberal candidate appears to surge, my nuance may be to vote Green to help them keep a hand in the mix. For me, environmental sanity is the most efficient framework for supporting social justice, because in the end it will demand the dismantling of capitalism. Everything else is rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. For a decade, Harper has been skipping the chairs and simply throwing the sick, poor, queer, female, First Nations and other non-white people overboard.
Back to Roseanne’s larger question:
So far I’ve been ambivalent about using my yoga platform to talk about electoral politics. Time and interpersonal constraints play a role. I have a limit for playing appease-a-troll on comment threads. I’m toiling over a book and travelling a lot for work. I’m only teaching at two studios in town at this point, which means I don’t have as much in-person contact as I once did. Yoga Community Toronto has been little but a spam-magnet Facebook page since our friend Jenna died, and since the competitive pace of yoga-gentrification diffused the yearning for or perhaps even possibility for community beyond the studio level.
I’m also a new parent, so a lot of politics happens in the kitchen, or on the street, or with the Lorax, or in the few minutes before falling into sleep when I murmur “What’s the most important thing to do?” and I hear some liminal answer I rarely remember. This much is sure: I’d have more time to door-knock for the Greens than I’d have to argue for why yoga people should vote progressive, or for why yoga should make people more progressive. I tied myself in knots arguing both of those positions in 2012 in a daze of hope and confusion.
Seeking the Illusory Yoga Vote
Back then, a bunch of us thought it would be the yoga thing to stop coyly hiding our progressive aspirations behind “getting out the vote” efforts. We wanted to provoke through endorsement. We argued on the basis of ethics derived from practice that it was an absolute no-brainer to vote for Obama over Romney, who believes the planet is his disposable space station en route to Kolob.
I don’t regret it. But now I think it was mostly noise. First, it bolstered the confirmation bias of our self-selected online choir. There was some validating back-slapping: “Of course! Great idea! Rally the yoga vote for the good guys!” However, it also spotlighted that slice of the yoga sector infected by self-immolating leftist idealism, hell-bent on pitching a false equivalency between the two candidates and insisting that the zero-sum pious choice was Green or non-dualistic abstention.
Third – it drew protests about boundaries. Many compared their yoga mat to Rumi’s field – beyond good and evil – and said that practice was effective for them precisely because it gave respite from a world of conflict. They were mostly fine with being encouraged to vote, but not with the notion of engaging with policy issues.
I’m ashamed of my response to this one. I brushed it off as a cop-out, which was a real empathy fail for someone working as a yoga therapist. Was I really willing to push an oppositional agenda into the world of yoga education? Practice and ethics and policy are inseparable to me, but doesn’t negotiating them simultaneously devitalize each?
I also didn’t give much thought to the impact my writing activism might have on my classroom or consultation environment. Who might feel excluded or intimidated, and who might feel drawn in by an even thicker transference than usual? I was definitely short on the maturity shown by Regina’s Colin Hall in this elegant post. It helps to get out of the way when you’re serving people, and I’m still learning how to do that. Maybe I should have been a socialist from the Prairies.
But it was the fourth impact of our endorsement campaign that surprised a lot of us. Our appeal uncovered deep currents of unexamined and unabashed white and gender privilege in Yogaland, as well as an unexpected amount of fiscal conservatism and libertarianism that are allergic to collectivist goals.
Overall, I can’t imagine that our endorsements influenced a single voter. But that fourth revelation has turned out to be a good kick in the old zafu. You see, I believe some of us were operating under a seemingly benign illusion that can only serve to distract or exhaust those who hold it. This would be the belief that yoga or meditation should naturally lead towards particular ideals of progressivism and pragmatic strategy. How could it not be, some of us wondered, that the tender realizations of movement and breath available on the mat wouldn’t spontaneously turn everyone into champions of community and social welfare? What do these oneness sensations do, if they don’t manifest oneness? It’s a tricky belief: innocent in its wishfulness, maybe a little smug in its projections, and possibly regressive in its effects.
For now I’ll call this belief the Oneness Mode, or OM for short. It derives from the single biggest category mistake in Yogaland I know of: the confusion of internal practices and states with external methods and realities. It provides the language of pop-Tantra. Oneness experiences on the cushion are thought to imply or invoke or encourage oneness realities in the world. People under the spell of OM imagine that their personal epiphanies on the mat have universal value or meaning. If they’re charismatic to begin with, they may be drawn to evangelize their discoveries into new brands or lineages, like John Friend magnifying and marketing the particular delights of his own body into a scheme of Universal Principles. If they are progressive to begin with, they may feel they’ve found a common, psychosomatic ground for ethics and behaviour rooted in justice. Not only is this untrue, it is a sentiment that is far too easily diluted through commodification to be of use.
The Scofield Insight: Spirituality Provides No Clear Political Guidance
The efforts of Be Scofield have been pivotal in relieving me of the OM. In piles of articles and threads over the past several years, she has tirelessly deconstructed the “of course yoga practice leads to moral action” bromide with which so many seem to comfort or excuse themselves.
If you haven’t heard it yet, the core of her argument is that there is no such thing as a spiritual or religious practice that grants realizations that lead to predictable policy objectives. She lays out the evidence plainly. Zen monks and asana yogis alike can meditate and stretch their way into fascist fervors. MBSR teachers can very compassionately help Amazon executives become more serenely rapacious. With meditation, vets recover from PTSD, and Navy Seals improve their shooting. We shouldn’t be surprised if the Volkswagon plan to hack diesel emissions testing was hatched in some deep contemplative equipoise.
If Patanjali provided a clear morality that didn’t need to be interpreted through the political values of his readers, practitioners who hold the Sutras as biblical wouldn’t be divided on vegetarianism or the reality of white privilege, but they are. Gandhi took the Bhagavad Gita as his source of inspiration for political action. So did his assassin, Nathuram Godse.
If you hold the on-the-ground gifts of asana or meditation to be contingent upon an interpretation of ancient Buddhist or yoga ethics that just happens to align with your Euro-American progressivism, you may be simply sacralizing ideas you already hold dear and learned elsewhere. You may be veneering them onto the same orientalized vagueness that people you can’t stand will interpret to support their own ideas, which you’ll find obnoxious.* You can say that those people don’t understand true Buddhism or yoga, but then they’ll say the same thing about you. It doesn’t really matter who’s right. What matters is that progressives can easily waste time on two canards: 1) the unlikelihood that Iron Age or medieval South Asian ethics harmonize in any way with modern left-coast politics, and 2) that the shifting sands of spiritual sentiment — where oneness, empathy, and salvation mean different things to different people — are stable enough to support political movements.
What is this drive to use the Buddha to validate your politics, when you can cite Noam Chomsky or bell hooks, who actually taught them to you, whether directly or via osmosis? The cynic might say it’s marketing, but it could also be something more benign: the delight and love of meditative oneness states is easy to project into the fantasy of a larger resolution. Peak moments provoke the OM, which says Oh, it all makes sense, it’s all been worked out, we’re all in this together. But then you have to go out and do stuff and it’s not so easy. That’s why we keep practicing, says the teacher who fails to distinguish the private oneness experience from the OM.
The gathering realization that our moments of internal harmony teach us neither where we are blind to our neighbours nor actual strategies for how to act justly can be hard to bear. And the idea that our gurus hold specialized knowledge of internal worlds to the exclusion of the interpersonal worlds where most our stuff actually happens can come as a shock. But let’s be honest: most of them gained the skills we laud them for by assiduously ignoring the world around them. We pursue them into their radiant solitude, because we crave our own. Anandamurti seems a notable exception to the apolitical rule. He considered his Marxist-inspired Progressive Utilization Theory to be integral to his spiritual synthesis of Vedic and Tantric streams. He would have endorsed our endorsement scheme, but nobody beyond our circle would have cared. Ananda Marga has had very little impact upon the modern postural movement.
Introspective experience can feel individually liberating, and this definitely fills an aching void. But it’s only ultimately important if the individual is placed at the top of the value-chain. The Scofield Insight shows that evangelizing a private experience must always be mediated by the dominant politics it is embedded within and blindered to, what with all those eyes focused on all those tips of noses. This is why, for example, mainly-white yoga and meditation communities can be surprised when they’re told that they are not only mainly-white, but may in fact be perpetuating white privilege. Didn’t all of that lovingkindness meditation we did prove to us that we’re all equal? Sure: amongst ourselves and in our own heads. The OM is powerful. But it takes actual political training to articulate an actual political stance. As one of America’s original yogi-feminists Diana Alstad said, only a little flippantly, over dinner one night: “Why should I be interested in Patanjali? Wasn’t he writing before feminism?”
Neoliberalism and the OM
Suggesting that the oneness or empathy-enhancing experiences of yoga and meditation naturally lead to progressive activism, as I used to, leads to the Scofield Dead End. Oneness is a private therapeutic that the OM presents as strategy.
But I think there’s a deeper problem: the sentimentality of the OM, when blended with the fetish of personal evolution, is also integral to neoliberal propaganda.
It’s hard to define neoliberalism, but for here we can say it’s the loose religion that gives capitalism a unitary and moralistic veneer. It situates the individual at the centre of reality-generation, responsibility, and fulfillment. It is practiced through self-surveillance and self-improvement rituals that become compulsory for dignity if not survival, as consumerist alienation rises and notions of social welfare wither away. It commodifies and markets the OM through the assurance that we’re all equal and everything’s all right.
Beyond the world of theory, we can call it the Lulu Effect. It’s everywhere, from the Body Shop to Whole Foods to the Eat, Pray, Spend genre of priv-lit. Through self-help products and narratives, the Lulu Effect provokes and packages emotions of oneness and connectivity as instrumental to a virtuous citizenship, in which feeling good and doing good are yoked through the buying of products that are conceived of as moral because the consumer’s intention has been elevated. None of this is hidden. It is as open and obvious as people doing asana and meditating in stores that sell clothes sewn together in sweatshops.
Post-Sixties non-traditional spirituality in Euro-America, characterized by the OM and adept at making non-dogmatic freedom its primary dogma, has always been married to and extended by the broader thrust of free-market capitalist globalization. Euro-American yoga culture has been swept along for the ride. The inequality of the system doles out cash or credit, allowing a few people to fly to exotic locales to consume self-development. The entrepreneurs sit in business class, inventing alternative products to sell to those who long for continual personality upgrading. Mats are unrolled, drums are circled, massage oils are heated, breakthroughs are memoired, and people are transformed into their next versions of authenticity. All of it happens in tandem with the erosion of the commons, a steady climb of global wealth disparity, and a rising tide of environmental terror. Feeling good – which unlike “being equal”, is something we are assured we’re entitled to – can cast a deep shadow of hidden costs.
The elision of yoga and meditation-derived oneness feelings with visions of world unity resonates with the unconscious mandate of the neoliberal self, who is taught to believe that private transcendence is crucial for validating the market freedom that will liberate everyone and solve every problem. Yoga is stilling the fluctuations of the mind. The body is my temple; asanas are my prayers. Just do it. Be the change you want to see. Yoga is skill in action. What’s your excuse? Follow your bliss. Practice and all is coming. Lean in. It all seems to swirl together in a taijitu of triumphalism and anxiety. The extreme athlete in the running shoe commercial expressing her individuation from mediocrity by summiting a lonely mesa at dawn is interchangeable with the mountaintop meditator. Both wear luon, and both express passions, but neither can tell us anything about equality or justice, except that it comes to those who can pay for it.
Yoga Belongs to Alternative, Not Oppositional, Culture
If I haven’t made it clear, none of my analysis here is meant to devalue the personal work on the mat that we know is occurring all over the place. My aim is to trouble the explicit and implicit claims made by hopeful and stretchy progressives, unreflexive yogapreneurs, and neoliberal marketers about how our work on the mat translates into social good. The Scofield Insight makes it generally clear that such claims are deeply flawed. I’ve gone on to show that the claims are further diluted by their overlap with neoliberalism. I’ll conclude the analysis for now by describing why Euro-American yoga, even if the OM were dispelled, is not a grounded platform for concrete political activism.
When its private experiences are bootstrapped into the pubic sphere, Euro-American yoga expresses itself within alternative culture, not oppositional culture.** In alternative culture, individuals invest in personal learning to cut unique pathways towards the satisfaction of personal destinies. In oppositional culture, people are willing to die in group actions towards shared material goals like abolition, voting rights, and labour or environmental justice. By contrast, alternative culture emphasizes inner development, the performance of emotional authenticity, and the belief that psychological change is either more desirable than political change, or that it makes political change irrelevant. Additionally, the journey of alternative personal growth is consumerist: value accumulates through the manufacture and purchasing of a series of ascendingly virtuous choices, from organic food to teacher trainings to spiritual makeovers, each successively priced almost out of reach.
In its global consumerist and alternative iteration, yoga culture has always been more about trying something else than about refusing to play the game. Evolved to be loose, receptive, non-judgmental, innovative, and extended through mechanisms of personal choice, Euro-American yoga culture seems both structurally and philosophically allergic to strategies of opposition. This stands in stark contrast to its Indian roots, in which asana practice provided, in part, a body-politic ritual of anti-colonial resurrection. In Euro-America, the fact that yoga activism around election time must limit itself to getting out the vote is the perfect example of how the culture is allowed to value the process of choosing, but cannot risk passing judgment on the value of particular choices. Doing so would compromise the integrity of the personal journey.
Several brave people and organizations have been able to transparently mobilize yoga resources in self-reflexive, justice-oriented ways. Scofield’s Decolonizing Yoga and the YBIC do great work towards making yoga culture more just. Off the Mat has taken mature strides towards developing social justice curricula for teachers and trainers. Among outreach efforts, the Yoga Services Council works tirelessly to make the therapeutics of yoga and mindfulness accessible beyond the borders of Yogaland, especially schools. I’d presume to say that all of these activists know that they’re doing far more than offering alternatives, even if they have to couch their initiatives in the language of “alternative” to let them breathe. They are forwarding visions that oppose dominant paradigms.
I’ll continue to admire and support these friends vigorously, and I’ll always love working with my colleagues who marshal yoga infrastructure towards justice. But I’m aware that they constitute a statistically tiny slice of the broader culture, where pro-social initiatives are usually limited to charitable efforts that indulge white saviour narratives or voluntourism, or inspirational gestures like Swami Vishnudevananda flying his Piper Apache over the Berlin Wall, or group actions like malas of sun salutations for world peace or mass meditations at the barricades of G20 riots. Themed group practices can be profoundly moving for participants, and they carve out an interesting space between introspection and public discourse. But as spectacles of alternatives, they can barter strategy for the optics of an above-the-battleground dream. The messaging is often generalized to a content-poor “can’t we all get along?” theme, and it’s always dutifully self-reflective: “change begins within.”
Are we always so sure it does? One thing seems clear: world leaders and those who throw bricks at their motorcades are too busy to notice your inner changes or care about how well you’re holding space for everybody’s process. They’re at war. Stephen Harper, Tony Abbot, and David Cameron are quite happy that at least a few of you have the good sense to sit there quietly, in the perfect form of peaceful protest. They know you’ll be fine, because who exactly has the time and money to sit quietly? Sitting in half-lotus at the periphery of chaos performs an alternative rooted in the same privilege the brick-throwers are opposing. It is a choice, and the majority of choices like this are possible through the support of time and money. The powerful can interpret the ability to choose meditation over brick-throwing as proof that consumers of self-help can make virtuous choices that do not disrupt the machine. Oppositional culture is about changing the power dynamics that allow some people to have choices because others are coerced.
A Grab-Bag Bullet-Summary So Far
- Communists, fascists, neoliberals, racists, hedonists, radical environmentalists, hipsters, Tea Partiers, organic farmers, and religious fundamentalists can all enjoy the realizations of yoga and meditation, and claim those realizations support their politics, or aversion to politics. Ergo, there is no coherent yoga vote to be mobilized.
- Question: would you participate in “Get out the yoga vote” campaigns if it were clear that the general yoga demographic is no more progressive (or perhaps less progressive) than any other?
- Often, arguing over what “yoga really is” is a good way to conceal political agendas. Debaters want their politics to sound more noble through frameworks of ultimate truth.
- The phrase “yoga community” often sounds like it’s pointing at a collectivist ideal. But if that ideal remains undefined, what becomes of all the emotional capital it churns up?
- Believing that yoga practice necessarily leads to progressivism is naïve.
- Wanting people in your classes or circles to be as progressive as you are is a juicy countertransference that may not make for inclusive space, despite every stated aspiration to be “inclusive.”
- Euro-American yoga culture is inextricable from alternative culture. Alternative culture is both innovative and inextricable from consumerism. Consumerism is the id-function of capitalism. Neoliberalism is the religion that sacralizes capitalism with visions of individualistic transcendence. It’s easy for modern yoga culture to get tangled up in this pretty badly.
- Steve Jobs’ favourite book was Autobiography of a Yogi.
- Alternative culture is different from oppositional culture. It is apathetic to or even hostile towards concrete political action.
- Oppositional culture has no time for the Oneness Mode.
- One enduring legacy of the Sixties is that the public performance of alternative culture is dead easy to commodify.
- For all of these reasons and more, it’s may be more efficient — not to mention honest — to let the connections between yoga and activism be personally therapeutic, and largely hidden, instead of elevating them to new identitarian ideals, and just leave it at that. Whether Jesus said it or not, Matthew 6:5 records a cool idea: “When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. When you pray, go into your inner room.”
- BTW: Quoting Jesus gives no more substantive weight to any political argument than quoting Patanjali or Adi Shankaracharya does.
Left Hands, Right Hands: Secret Dialectic
Tantra! Tantra! Everybody wants to be all Tantric-y. With days to go in this horrible election campaign, I’m realizing that if it’s all tied up with the OM, I’ll take a pass on pop-Tantra. Sure, I’m a householder, and I write books that rail against spiritual bypassing and consumasceticism. I promote the folding of spirituality into everyday life. I present Ayurveda as a political practice as much as a self-care practice. Yes, the joy and trouble of this life is all one big messy thing. I meditate on laundry piles, compost diapers, make Ayurvedic wine to drink with roast chicken, and I gobble kitcheri while watching the undercard before Ronda Rousey kicks ass.
But the OM is something I can see clearly now, and I’m not buying it. I’m suspicious of any theme that wants to convert my capacity for self-regulation and wonderment into the premise that everything will turn out all right because it was always already perfect, or never really substantial. The OM encourages people to smile just a little too much, to be a little too invasive with their eye-contact, to infer a little too much camaraderie in spaces in which discussing race and class are taboo. I’m also wary of consolation. The entire culture wants to console me, even as it baits and oppresses others. “Your nature is divine” can have psychological value for a time, but it loses edge with each repetition, eventually begging the question, “So what?”
When I practice, I go into my inner room, move through postures, sit and breath, and experience capacities I too often forget: to feel my alone state distinct from my together state, to be free of language, to mine memories and sometimes heal them, to explore hatred and love, to relax the forward pulse of agency, to be so astounded that there’s a beating heart in here that it sometimes feels like it stops.
As the Canadian winter approaches, I know I have an inner room and can do all of this in a house with heating. I know I have the heating I have because my government is allowing flood waters to rise in places like Calcutta, where yoga is an ethnic heritage. This is a paradox I refuse to console with the OM, or allow to paralyze me with flip side of the OM, which is shame. It is a paradox that enhances my engagement with the oppositional.
I once used practice to help mend internal splits and soothe existential paradox. Now I seem to use it to inflame them.
Practice is what I do to restore myself from conflict, and to prepare myself for more conflict. It’s not an alternative to conflict, but a pause in conflict. It might help me have less stressful conflicts, but there are no guarantees. It might extend my life and maintain my mental health, but there are no guarantees. And because for all I know Harper, Abbott and Cameron might do yoga together to bring the power of the OM to each aggressive summit they hold, I know practice in itself holds no essential virtue to claim or brag about.
My practice is therapy against the stress of opposition, which is a moral constant. That’s all. I do not speculate that the sensations of asana or meditation reveal an eternal self or non-self inseparable from a perfected universe in which Bernie Sanders and Scott Walker blend into the smoothie of the absolute. Practice just helps me love more and be less reactive when it’s inefficient to be reactive. It shows me that privilege can be used to access regions of resolution and joy in life that I want everyone to have. But its more important gift is that it gives sustainability to my opposition to those who would steal resolution and joy.
I’m a practitioner. I’m an activist. These roles get along within me if they each keep their focus. They can give each other tips and critiques across the threshold of my inner room. The practitioner lights candles. The activist lights fires. The match is passed from the right to the left hand.
Before yoga, one of the many lines from Leonard Cohen that shook my bones was: “One hand on my suicide and one hand on the rose.” For years, practice helped to mend that internal bipolar opposition that swung between abject depression and overwhelming joy. Now that my inner life feels meh-to-good-enough, my hands can express an extroverted opposition. One hand holds a mudra, and the other holds a weapon. So maybe I’m Tantric-y after all.
Don’t let your right hand know what your left hand is doing — another reported Jesus saying. The commentaries suggest he was warning against ostentation and hypocrisy. Public displays of yoga virtue that project premature oneness and obscure moral struggle are vulnerable to both.
But Jesus may also be describing a classic strategy in guerrilla warfare. No clandestine cell of an oppositional force should know much about what the other cells are doing. This is crucial for security, in case a cell is captured. But it also enhances the focus of each. My practitioner self needn’t be concerned with what my activist self is doing. Each shadowed to the other, they thrive on mutual inspiration. Perhaps they even compete. The farther inward one of them goes to explore and restore, the farther outward the other must venture, to risk and resist. If they keep their alliance secret, it cannot be commodified.
* David Chapman has a good overview of how modern liberal-left ideas get palimpsested onto a reconstruction of “ancient Buddhism.”
** A concise presentation of the alternative/oppositional distinction is laid out by Lierre Keith of Deep Green Resistance. I think Keith and DGR are tragically wrong both morally and tactically about their radical feminist position that excludes trans women, but Keith’s analysis of this issue is insightful nonetheless.
A Niqāb at the Opera, or, Who is Not Veiled?
On the night of October 3rd, 2014, singers of l’Opéra National de Paris halted their performance of Verdi’s La Traviata at the Bastille Opera House because one of them spotted a female “tourist from a Gulf State” in the front row, wearing a niqāb. They gathered behind the first act curtain to tell the company’s deputy director, Jean-Philippe Thiellay, that they would refuse to go on, unless she was either unveiled or removed.
Thiellay backed the singers, and, citing France’s 2011 burqa ban, under which the veiled woman could be fined €150 for her chosen dress, asked security to confront her. She left promptly with her male companion. Eyewitnesses would have had to assess her body language and gait to know whether she felt humiliated.
It’s both hilarious and pathetic that the precious faculty of irony could so fail a gaggle of French singers — in powdered wigs, pretending to be 19th century Italians — that they would piously feel that a viewer’s clothing was disrupting their fiction. Perhaps it says something about the artistic poverty of the opera class that its elite performers can’t recognize the strange parallels of passion and anachronism mirrored across the footlights that night. The bustier and tophat-wearers gazed out into the front row, and saw a black gown and niqāb reflected back. Continue reading “A Niqāb at the Opera, or, Who is Not Veiled?”
Yogapillgate: Discourse, Transparency, Epistemology, Magic
On Saturday, LA yoga teacher and Bollywood dance instructor Hemalayaa Behl posted a blog about how people who practice yoga should really manifest better moods through dancing and naps so that they can get off all those inauthentic anti-depressant medications.
She confessed that hearing about fellow yoga teachers who use “happy pills” triggered disappointed memories of her own mother, who didn’t have the strength to pull herself up out of her mental health challenges by her yoga bootstraps.
The post was an ugly, patronizing, reductionary, ignorant erasure of the experience of vast numbers of people who already battle widespread stigmatization of medications they need, in the worst cases, to keep them alive. To her great good credit, Behl has admitted as much through a heartfelt apology.
Unfortunately, the tsunami of negative response — and Behl’s contrition — has now prompted her to remove her original post. This means that the thousands of fruitful and polarizing comments it has generated through links so far, not to mention the hours of intense work that writers like Charlotte Bell, Alyssa Royse, and Camicia Bennet put in to passionately and thoughtfully responding to Behl are now pointing at an empty space. Taking the post down steals time, energy, and insight from all of those people, and insight from those who would learn from the full exchange. Fortunately, the web cache gives it all back.
Continue reading “Yogapillgate: Discourse, Transparency, Epistemology, Magic”
Ancient Ayurvedic Penis Advice
Normally this space is reserved for extremely important things, like the workings of yoga culture within late-stage capitalism, and how the holistic wisdom of Ayurveda can either conflict with or complement biomedicine. This post might seem to deviate, but don’t be fooled. It has a crucial message, especially for readers with penises:
Please stop scrubbing your genitals like you’re using steel wool to get burned kichari out of a cheap pot. The ancestors implore you. M’kay? Continue reading “Ancient Ayurvedic Penis Advice”